Bring empathy into another person's story
On my daily commute I’m frequently stopped by the same traffic light where I see a familiar man. There’s some dirt on his hands and face. His clothing is disheveled, and the hair hanging from underneath his hat is unkempt.
Where he stands lay open food containers, empty bottles and what looks like fresh items people gave from their work lunch boxes. He slowly walks along the line of vehicles careful to make eye contact and keep his balance. On this day our eyes connect, he smiles, gives a thumbs up and receives what I have to offer.
I haven’t asked him his name, where he was born, how old he is, if he has any family, or what happened in his life that led him to stand on a street corner soliciting food and money from strangers.
While I don’t know his story, he has one. We all have stories detailing where we started and what we’ve come through, but they are not always known. Most cases we don’t hear the stories of people’s experiences, we see the outward impact of those stories.
In the Bible the Lord reminds the prophet Samuel that appearance gives hints to a person’s story but does not reveal the full scope of a person’s life. Our stories are held in the heart where no human can intrude and read them, only God.
As uncomfortable as it is seeing the troubling impacts of people’s stories, there’s no way around it. We are born into community, which makes it impossible to be oblivious to our shared surroundings.
There’s no gate, plane, amount of money or window tint that allows us to completely and consistently circumvent the beauty and tragedy of people’s lives. It’s like God is a kindergarten teacher forcing us to share the human experience in hopes that we learn empathy and use it to do good for each other.
Empathy is a universal God-given ability to emotionally relate to others and feel what it’s like to be in their story.
We don’t have to lose a parent like Josie to have sympathy for hard goodbyes. It’s not necessary for us to grow up in an abusive household like Paul to have pity for how such an upbringing damages the self-esteem. Nor do we have to look like Marcus to relate to the pain of being treated unjustly for our appearance.
We can practice empathy without knowing the details of people's stories or experiencing them firsthand. All it requires is sincerely imagining what it's like being someone else.
Now, who wants to picture themselves as those who are disadvantaged, poor, oppressed or forgotten? It's not easy relating to people in despair but it's necessary to help them.
Seeing ourselves as other people helps us tell their stories with compassion. To begin telling stories of compassion, we have to first ask ourselves if we believe people want to live in pain and dire straits. If we answer yes, our stories about people will lack pity. However, if we answer no, we will tell ourselves stories that pity people who struggle to recover from hardships.
I believe the stories we tell ourselves about other people determine whether or not we help them. In the Gospel Jesus speaks of a Samaritan who happens to walk by a man beaten half dead. It’s clear he tells himself a story of compassion about the man by how he helps. From his own resources, he gives what he can to help the man bounce back after an evil encounter.
May we all tell ourselves stories of compassion to motivate us to help make a hard life a little better for someone else.
The Rev. Aaron Carter is the pastor of Simpson United Methodist Church. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.